Xìqǔ (戏曲) is the terms used only to describe Chinese opera, it was parallel to Theatre of ancient Greece and Sanskrit drama, people in the world called them The world's three oldest theatrical cultures. Unfortunately, there was no circulation or continuation of the Greek theatre and Sanskrit drama, but traditional Chinese opera is still active on the stage, it has showed the world its extremely tenacious and exuberant vitality. Traditional Chinese opera is a cultural-abundant treasury, reflecting the glory and charm of Chinese culture at different levels.
Development of Traditional Chinese Opera
Traditional Chinese opera is a popular form of drama and musical theatre in China with roots going back to the early periods in China. It is a composite performance art that is an amalgamation of various art forms that existed in ancient China, and evolved gradually over more than a thousand years. Early forms of Chinese theater are simple, but over time they incorporated various art forms, such as music, song and dance, martial arts, acrobatics, as well as literary art forms to become traditional Chinese opera. In the ancient China, clan-tribe has already involved this kind of performances in the ritual like worship or amuse the god. In the early years of the People's Republic of China, the development of Chinese opera was encouraged; many new operas on historical and modern themes were written, and earlier operas continued to be performed, the Chinese opera was then enter into another flourishing period. As a popular art form, opera has usually been the first of the arts to reflect changes in Chinese policy. Today, there are about 267 types of Chinese opera is performing on stage and there are over millions of plays in China.
Artistic Style of Traditional Chinese Opera
Unlike the western theatre and drama, Chinese opera’s artistic styles are mainly presenting in 3 aspects.
The first aspect is the comprehensiveness of this culture. Chinese opera is an art that combined with different types of performances, for example, Chinese literature (narration with different dialects and verse which means literary composition in rhyme), Music (Vocal and instrumental music), Fine art, Dance and Acrobatics. Speaking literarily, Chinese opera is an integration of express aspirations of poetry, narration of historical biography, amusing music etc; Speaking on behalf of stage performances, it is a combination of talking, singing, acting, reading, fighting, diverse but merging with each other magnificently; On the other hand, in terms of the types of characters:
Shēng (生): refer to the main male character in the play.
Dàn (旦): refer to any female characters in the play.
Jìng (净): refer to painted-face male role, depending on the repertoire of the particular troupe, he will play either primary or secondary roles. This type of role will entail a forceful character, so a Jing must have a strong voice and be able to exaggerate gestures.
Mò (末): refer to middle-aged male character, usually has beard on their makeup.
Chǒu (丑): refer to painted-face male clown role, the Chou usually plays secondary roles in a troupe, in most of the study, Chou is classified as a minor role.
There is clear division of characters, each of their duties in the play are clearly assigned and thus formed the basic structure of the play.
The second aspect is the virtuality of Chinese opera. Opera plays are based on people’s real life, select and extract from the most attractive and resonated part, through the way of singing, dialogue, dance or fighting, simulate a similar scene out. Virtualization has turned the limited stage into a free and flexible spaces, vividly show the viewer the twist and turn of the play, glamorous mise en scene and the distinctive characters.
The third aspect is the procedural features of Chinese opera. Although Chinese opera encourage new creations, there is certain rules and formats to follow. These rules are not only involving in the way of performing, the type of script, but also including lines between characters, the singing tune or the makeup. Chinese opera is reflecting on people’s life, it is close to people’s life; and yet there is certain distance between them as the use of rules have gave value to the aesthetic of normal daily life, make the ‘life’ more charming and delightful.
Ethos of Chinese Opera
Chinese opera is a sub-unit on the tree of Chinese cultures. Just like the others, it absorbs nutrition from the main root, at the same time, enrich the entire Chinese culture by its own development. Despite the fact that there is certain amount of plays which are negative and unfavorable to the society, the mainstream Chinese opera plays are still positive and optimistic, have made important contributions to, spread and promote the traditional Chinese culture.
Nationally, it preserved the national moral value, raise the voice of Chinese people, fight for their justice. Chinese opera existed and reached its mature form in the 13th century, which is the time that ethics contradictions were sharp and social tension were at a very high level. China has even invaded and insulted by western power in history. This lead to the creation of ‘hero’ characters in Chinese opera, Chinese artists want to encourage the nation, ask people to uphold their own national pride under bad national-social conditions. Many ‘national hero’ were then created, for example, hero that are loyal to the nation, Yuè fēi (岳飞), Yáng zōng bǎo (杨宗保), Mù guì yīng (穆桂英), Shé tài jūn (佘太君), Huā mù lán (花木兰); or hero that fight for people, Sū wǔ (苏武), Wáng zhāo jūn (王昭君), Lǐ xiāng jūn (李香君); even the bad people that betrayed the nation, Máo yán shòu (毛延寿), Qín huì (秦桧), Jiǎ sì dào (贾似道), Pān rén měi (潘仁美). From these characters, we can see that spirit of ‘Every man alive has a duty to his country.’ in those Chinese artists. They have become a huge driving force to encourage the nation under bad conditions.
Socially, it helped to uphold the good and defend the integrity of society. Chinese opera was very common among Chinese society, it lay its root in the daily life of people, observe people morally, thus generated its own value for good or bad people. For example, in the play“The Injustice to Dou E” (窦娥; Dòu é yuan), .Dou E does not want her mother-in-law to be implicated so she admits to the murder (although she is innocent), good people in Chinese opera play are usually those who insist their own value, always think about others and reject anything that are ‘bad’, there is always act that prove these good people is right and indicate people to follow. For the bad people, who betray others or repay good with evil, the play usually gave them punishment at the end, for example, Chén shì měi (陈世美) in the play ‘Fragrant Lotus’ (秦香蓮; Qín xiāng lián), who betray his wife for better future and attempted to assassinate her. These plays have directly present the social moral value of people at the time, this is reason why Chinese opera always resonate with Chinese people.
Ethically, it against the traditional ethical rules, encourage people to pursue their own happiness. There are lots of famous play that is about romance and marriage in Chinese opera, for example, ‘The Peony Pavilion’ (牡丹亭; Mǔdāntíng),‘The Story of the Western Wing’ (西厢记; Xīxiāngjì), or‘The Butterfly Lovers’ (梁山伯与祝英台; Liángshānbóyǔzhùyīngtái). These acts reject and complain about the marriage that is arrange by parents' order and on the matchmaker's word – the old-fashioned marriage in the old feudal society. Encourage ‘deviant and rebel’ behaviour like tracing your own happiness by yourself and advocate the freedom of love. Although Chinese opera itself cannot shaken the feudal regime fundamentally, it still positively accelerates the freedom of thought and release of humanity.